If government officials fight over the baton instead of finding an effective orchestra conductor, Americans will needlessly suffer in any wicked problem.
An instinct to regulate instead of to perform
In case after case, the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina rules, procedures, and paperwork stymied the response. President Bush said, “We will not allow bureaucracy to get in the way of saving lives.”9 But an infuriated Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) told Nightline, “What I’ve seen the last several days is bureaucrats that were worried about procedure rather than saving lives. That’s what I’ve seen.”10 Hundreds of firefighters from around the country were stuck in Atlanta, receiving days of training on community relations and sexual harassment, before they reached the front lines. Truck drivers carrying thousands of water bottles were prevented from driving to New Orleans because they had not yet been assigned a “tasker number.”11 Sheriffs from other states simply ignored the paperwork. Wayne County, Michigan, Sherriff Warren C. Evans said he refused to stop his convoy of 6 trailer trucks, full of food and water, and 33 deputies. “I could look at CNN and see people dying, and I couldn’t in good conscience wait for a coordinated response,” he said.12 Rules are invaluable. They help ensure that the same people in the same circumstances receive equitable treatment from government. For example, we would not want individual social security workers making their own best estimate about the size of a senior citizen’s check. But regulations can also create deep pathologies. They provide safety from protection and blame and make it easy for officials to duck the responsibility for thinking about what they are trying to accomplish.
Rules matter. But they exist to foster superior performance. We can’t afford thousands of cowboys in the middle of a crisis, each setting policy on his own. When rules don’t fit the situation, obedience to them can paralyze the capacity to act.